African Tech Experts Challenge Google’s 3G Air Balloon Loon Project

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Written by Makula Dunbar

“The barrier to Internet adoption is not so much the lack of connectivity. It’s the high cost of the equipment. In Kenya, most parts of the country have 3G access,” Phares Kariuki, former world bank technology consultant told the MIT Technology Review.

He believes that Google’s Loon Project — created to provide 3G Internet connectivity across Africa via stratospheric solar powered air balloons — isn’t correctly tackling the continent’s tech problem. Access to Internet and electronics for the poor, Kariuki said, is the underlying issue.

Jackson Hungu, mobile technology head of Kenya’s Clinton Health Access Initiative thinks the project should include other perks in addition to connectivity as some people in urban regions won’t consider the project to be as impactful as those in rural areas with scant Internet access.

“If it is just going to deliver Internet to a few guys in the wilderness, fine,” he told the MIT Technology Review. “But if it can be part of this big data phenomenon, and deliver useful data from the Great Rift Valley, which delivers food security to the nation – then maybe it begins to make some more sense.”

While the Loon project is being tested in New Zealand, Google says addressing every technical issue in every nation is not the project’s aim. And according to the MIT Technology review, while Google will run into issues with air space restrictions, they are able to control the altitude of the balloons and how they react to varying wind currents.

Hungu noted that if the balloons delivered information on weather conditions — their presence would be ultimately effective. The balloons are instead positioned above the weather, but in the long-run they could transmit reports on wind conditions, which correlate with the weather, according to the MIT Technology Review.

“We don’t think there is any one solution or one company that will have a solution for the whole world,” Google’s Loon project manager, Mike Cassidy said in the report. “We just think that from what we’ve seen, there are huge swaths of people who don’t have connectivity.”

iHub manager Jimmy Gitonga also has opposing views that dispute the project’s purpose and longevity.

“I honestly don’t take this too seriously; what Google probably wants to do is make sure the Google brand gains mindshare,” he said.

“I personally think it’s like Richard Branson flying a balloon around the world. It’s a marketing gimmick more than a technology that will really work,”  “